American Jewish activists recall their roles in ‘slowly breaking down’ civil rights barriers

The March down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963 drew an estimated 125,000 locals.

Martin Luther King370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Martin Luther King370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK – It wasn’t quite as large, momentous or memorable as the March on Washington, but the March down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963 drew estimated crowds of 125,000 locals.
Among those were Avern Cohn, Allen Zemmol and Irving Tukel of Detroit, all young lawyers at the time who were active supporters of King’s message.
Zemmol, 83, remembered the march as “jammed” with people.
“I don’t think there were more than four or five thousand white people there,” Tukel recalled of the march.
“We were just there to show solidarity.”
Cohn, who at the time was active the Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and is a United States District Judge for eastern Michigan, said he remembered Dr. King’s speech “was very stirring.”
“We were slowly breaking down barriers at the time,” Cohn said. “There was all sorts of Sturm and Drang in the South, and in Detroit there were all kinds of activity, and there was still substantial discrimination. Schools were still segregated.”
Cohn was a cooperating attorney with the ACLU, for which he sat on the board and occasionally took assignments defending protestors who had been arrested.
“Jews were in the forefront of combating racial prejudices,” Cohn remembered.
“There was a sense of solidarity with the civil rights movement. We began to develop a black-Jewish dialogue; Jews and blacks would meet and discuss the common state of affairs of the day.”
For Tukel, 77, the tensions were most palpable when he went down to Greenwood, Mississippi in August 1964 with the National Lawyers Guild when he was in his 20s.
“In August of 1964, we all had the same goal, which was the enlargement of civil rights in the United States,” Tukel said.
He recalled driving from Detroit down to Jackson, Mississippi and then to Greenwood, a drive he described as “fairly scary,” even though his only mission was to deliver some case files to a local judge in Oxford, Mississippi.
“I was a young lawyer, very idealistic,” he said. “As every generation does, we thought we could change things.”
Tukel recalled that the Jewish community of Metro Detroit, which he said in those days numbered 80,000 or 90,000, “stood up as a community” in the early 60s and helped steer the leadership organizations like the National Lawyer’s Guild and the United Auto Worker’s Union toward supporting civil rights.
In March 1964 Zemmol went down to Mississippi to help black Americans register to vote.
“A few weeks after we arrived, they found the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman,” Zemmol remembered, referring to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the one black and two Jewish civil rights activists from New York who were lynched in June 1964. Tukel, who arrived in Mississippi right after the three bodies were found recalled the high tensions in the region.
“Everyone was on edge,” he said.
Zemmol went to Mississippi to help black Americans register to vote.
“I remember the first town we went to, there were six guys standing in the door of the courthouse,” he said. “We just stared them down.”
The next town they went to, Zemmol recalled another “group of thugs” standing around “fixing a car with lead pipes.”
“There could have been a violent confrontation,” Zemmol said.
Fortunately, he said, nothing happened to him.
Bill Goodman, 73, said he remembered going down to the South as a 22-year-old law student at the University of Chicago to help write and file legal complaints on behalf of protestors.
Goodman is the son of Ernest Goodman, who was the president of the National Lawyers Guild and founder of the United State’s first interracial law firm, Goodman, Eden, Millender and Bedrosian.
“When the civil rights movement started to happen, people started mobilizing and protesting, and getting arrested and beaten,” Goodman said. “So obviously you need lawyers to assist that movement.”
The elder Goodman convinced the National Lawyer’s Guild to open an office in the South to assist southern lawyers and help bring in other lawyers from around the US.
“You can’t forget these things,” Goodman mused.
“We started an omnibus integration lawsuit in Danville, Lynchberg and Hopewell, Virginia.
The next summer [1963], Danville exploded,” he said, referring to the violent clashes between the high schoolers black community in Danville and police that Dr. King himself called “the worst police brutality he had seen in the South.”
“I recall people in Virginia who supported the Civil Rights movement were shunned in general,” Goodman said. “But those few white people who were friendly were Jewish. We’d go to this little restaurant owned by this Jewish guy who treated us like kings.”